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All the Journalists’ Men

There are two revelations in Jeff Himmelman’s attention-getting piece in New York magazine, published last night online, about longtime Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee’s personal files and interviews on the Watergate scandal. It has been fascinating to watch the reaction to these new pieces of information–namely, which of the two stirred the hornet’s nest.

The first is that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s source known as “Z” was actually a member of the case’s grand jury. The duo have always denied this, but when presented recently with the evidence, they confirmed it. The second is that Bradlee had shared the Doubt That Dare Not Speak Its Name: that Woodward and Bernstein had taken the soft clay of truth they had uncovered and molded it into a more visually appealing finished product. It was only common sense to harbor such doubts, given the claims being made, and certainly even more rational for the editor of the newspaper running these stories. But Woodward’s reaction has been a revelation of its own.

On its face, the more damaging disclosure would seem to be that Z was a member of the grand jury. A case built on witnesses is only as strong as the credibility of those witnesses, and this story has two prominent sources: Z and “Deep Throat,” the FBI’s Mark Felt. Yet this year we have seen the credibility of both witnesses suffer greatly. Felt’s suffered from the publication of Max Holland’s Leak. Holland confirms that, in the reporting of the Watergate affair, unrelated details were forced into arranged marriages to tidy up the storyline, and that Felt was actually a disgruntled employee attempting to tarnish the reputations of those above him so he could replace them at the top of the heap. His selected leaking was designed to impugn the reputation of acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray. And there was more, as Andrew Ferguson writes in COMMENTARY:

The notes Woodward took at this meeting with Felt, now in a university archive, differ markedly from the account that Woodward gives in All the President’s Men. “Many sentences [in the book] are moved around and the progression of Felt’s remarks rearranged,” Holland writes. “Occasionally the meaning of what [Felt] said is substantially changed….The account in the book contains words, phrases, and sometimes whole sentences that are not present in the type-written notes at all.” Here, then, is what we’ve been dealing with all these years: an inaccurate account explaining an erroneous newspaper article containing facts supplied by a double-dealing source who knew them to be untrue. A messy business, journalism.

But even with Felt’s integrity reeling, our heroic journalists still had the other source: Z. Woodward and Bernstein had always assured the public that Z was not a grand juror–that would have landed everyone involved in serious legal trouble. Just as significantly, in 1973 Woodward, in Himmelman’s description, “put Z’s information on the same level as Deep Throat’s. That’s a pretty high level.”

But now it seems Z’s cooperation on the story was unlawful, and that Woodward and Bernstein had been misleading the public about her true identity. That would call her credibility into serious question. In response, Woodward changed his tune. “This is a footnote to a footnote,” he said, dismissing her importance. (Politico quotes Woodward and Bernstein now saying Z was of “little consequence.”)

The controversy around Z, in the wake of Himmelman’s story, is being treated as a footnote itself, however. Logic would dictate that this piece of information is the true blockbuster. Instead, however, everyone involved is consumed by the human drama of Bradlee’s doubts. Bradlee is a mentor and something of a father figure to Woodward; Woodward was a mentor to Himmelman. And now there is a triangle of mistrust. Privately, to Himmelman and Bradlee, Woodward reacted as though there is now a knife in his back. Publicly, he has blamed Himmelman, because that is the easy thing to do. He lashed out at Himmelman after imploring him not to publish the fact that Bradlee once had doubts about Woodward’s story. But the knife is Bradlee’s–if there is a knife at all.

It turns out Woodward’s credibility isn’t faring much better than that of his sources. He says Bradlee’s doubts were fleeting, or never really there. He told Politico that there’s another interview in which Bradlee says he doesn’t doubt the veracity of the story. But he’s grasping at straws–Bradlee confirmed his doubts again more recently, in the runup to this story and in discussions about whether those doubts should be mentioned at all.

But then he drops the hammer: “It’s almost like the way Nixon’s tapings did him in, [Himmelman’s] own interview with Bradlee does him in.” Woodward, in his panicked paranoia, reaches for his vanquished enemy, because that victory is what still defines him. Later, he adds: “He can write what he wants, but his own transcript undercuts his premise. It’s one of those Perry Mason moments.”

Woodward, searching for comparisons, conjures a fictionalized television hero, who pieces together the evidence that the show’s Hollywood scriptwriters make sure fit neatly into place just as the viewers at home brace for the episode’s denouement.

Woodward is more right than he knows. This whole story is a lot like that–and Bradlee knew it.


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